I’m sorry to say I’ve been very lazy (and busy) the past two weeks, so my blog has not been updated in a while. That changes now. Here is part 3 of my 4-part short story: “Hidden in Plain Sight.” Be sure to read the previous blog posts/parts first if you haven’t already; the story won’t make sense otherwise for obvious reasons.
Some background: I wrote the first draft of this story last summer and am only starting to edit it now. Unfortunately, splitting it up into 4 parts have made the pacing questionable in some sections, but I’m still proud of past Austin’s work. He’s surprisingly competent for being a year in the past, if I do say so myself, so give this story a read.
To catch up readers who have forgotten how the last section ended because of my unfortunate blogging schedule, Jessie, the lead scientist, and their clones—products of the Wary Moon—have ventured out under its light in search of a chalice-shaped flower that is supposed to contain the weird box-like object the alien message said to find.
Around them, an ethereal field of grass and the occasional, wavy tree grew into existence, their soft light somehow making them more gentle than their real counterparts. Like the Wary Moon, all of these copies had the disconcerting habit of doing the opposite of what light should do. The world was still shrouded in nothingness—in fact, Jessie couldn’t even see her hands! It was like her clone was more real than she was.
The lead scientist looked at his clone, who was examining his own body, and chuckled despairingly. “And now we come to the ethical dilemma. My clone shares all my memories up until the point when he came into existence. In every practical sense, he is me but made of light, and once the Wary Moon passes, he’ll die. Is it fair for us to kill perfect copies of ourselves and therefore risk our own lives for some random aliens who may only be tricking us?”
“Ah, no time for that,” Jessie said, waving his concerns off. She didn’t seem it, but she was honestly disturbed as well. No matter how annoying her clone was, no one deserved to be brought into the world like some byproduct destined to live a short life then vanish.
They started trekking across the boot-sucking mud and scanned the plain for any signs of a chalice-shaped flower. The ethereal grass made their knee-high counterparts even thicker and harder to get through, but no one slowed down or took a break. Just like the Moon of Oblivion, the dangers of the Wary Moon were more plentiful than first met the eye.
“There!” clone Jessie cried in a hush.
Jessie’s eyes followed where her fingers were pointing. “You see the chalice flower?” she asked, excitement making her voice grow louder.
“No!” clone Jessie admonished. “Now whisper or it’ll see us.”
“It’s too late,” the lead scientist said, his clone already taking out the flare gun from his counterpart’s bag. Only cellular-based objects were copied, so clothes made from cotton, leather, and other plant or animal materials were thankfully spun from light, but flare guns constructed from metal and plastic didn’t make the cut.
Jessie noticed her copy didn’t have her earrings as the lead scientist’s clone raised the flare gun to the sky. Hah, I guess she isn’t a perfect copy, after all. She felt a weird sense of superiority from the fact, but the thought was wiped away as the clone pulled the trigger, his glowing fingers still unable to penetrate the darkness and show the flare gun’s existence.
“My name is Adrik, by the way,” he said without looking at Jessie—she was invisible in the darkness. “I thought you should know since we may all be about to die.”
A not really deafening but still loud “pop” rang out, followed immediately by the sizzle of the flare. Well, Jessie guessed it was the sizzle of the flare. She couldn’t actually see its burning sparkles.
But she could see the spindly creature hunting them. It had been hiding in the grass, so only Clone Jessie and then the lead scientist, Adrik, had noticed it. Now it was out in the open and searching for its prey by vibration, its glowing form highlighting its lean, slug-like tail and scarecrow arms. The transmission had called them “splendid beings.” Jessie didn’t know what had happened to its real counterpart, but from what they gathered, the clones of these monsters often ripped apart their real selves as soon as they blinked into existence.
“We’re not getting any help. The flare . . . should have known . . . can’t be seen,” Jessie said in nervous, gasping breaths. She was already running. “We have to get back to the spaceship.”
The splendid being disappeared into the ground. Like an unexpectedly long snake, its tail took several seconds to fit into what was presumably a hole, then vanished completely.
“Run!” clone Jessie screamed melodramatically. “Run for your lives.”
Clone Adrik just stood there. “Wait,” he said. “If I’m going to die anyway when I go back into the spaceship, then what’s the difference between continuing to search for the chalic—”
The clone of the splendid being erupted out of the ground like a geyser of light and devoured him whole with its round mouth-body. Spinning wildly, its disproportionately thin arms clawed their way through the ground as the creature submerged once more, spraying swampy water all over Jessie’s face. She spat out the muck, feeling sick, then ran in the general direction of the spaceship. The absence of light meant it was not visible, of course.
“Crap, crap, crap, crap . . . ooh!” Jessie stopped cursing long enough to express her amazement at her bad fortune. She could see the chalice plant. Of course she could see the chalice plant. Why couldn’t she have seen the chalice plant before she saw the splendid being? Now all she was going to see was the inside of the splendid being’s mouth.
“What do I do . . . what do I choose . . .” she muttered, already racing toward the chalice plant. She had to go get it. The greater good was the greater good for a reason. It trampled all other concerns, even the ones for Jessie’s own life.
“Hey!” Jessie suddenly heard the lead scientist, no, Adrik, shout. “You like to eat light? Then try this for a change.”
She couldn’t see him, but she did hear the flare gun go off as he fired again, the sizzling of the flare giving her hope until it was covered by a scream that was gone as fast as it had started. Jessie gulped and reached the chalice flower. Reaching for it, she gave herself a moment to check for its real counterpart, but there was none. This flower was the real deal. Jessie peered over its open top and saw a glowing box with a gear-headed rod extending out the middle. She picked it up, almost dropping it as its warm, pulsing body revealed to her that it was alive, and then did drop it. She dug inside the flower until she found the same box but invisible without light. It must have created a clone because it was made of cellular tissue, alive yet also some sort of device whose use escaped Jessie’s paltry understanding of biotechnology.
She cradled the box in her arms, ignoring the beat next to her heart. She wasn’t going to risk dropping it now, not when her only objective left was to bring it back to the spaceship some hundred meters away. Jessie took a step and . . .
Her foot caught on a particularly squishy patch of mud and she tripped, falling headfirst into the warm waters of a deep pool. Shocked by the enveloping heat and the even murkier, if not darker surroundings, Jessie struggled to surface and breath. Her lack of vision inside the water was the same as her lack of vision on land, but trapped beneath the pool, the blackness was suddenly tangible. She could taste the disgusting silt that forced its way onto her tongue as she involuntarily opened her mouth, trying to get in a breath but mainly just panicking. The splendid being was still out there, hopefully hunting her clone, but Jessie knew it was attracted by movement.
And she sure was doing a lot of thrashing . . .
Out of the corner of her eye, Jessie saw it: a glimpse of light—a glimpse of her death. Glowing, scarecrow arms appeared a second later, still just out of her vision. She twisted desperately to catch sight of her enemy, saw nothing, and then the splendid being was behind her, one claw wrapping painfully around her ankle from depths she could not fathom. Its mouth was just beneath her, a yawning chasm filled with circles of thick, jagged teeth.
Jessie would be lying if she said she cared about the pulsing box anymore. For the first time, she realized why people didn’t look at every situation logically and measure out the odds of survival.
Because death was terrifying, and no one deserved to be given up to the whirling depths of the Deep Moon without a fight. That’s what I’ve done, Jessie realized. When I decided to go for the chalice flower instead of the spaceship, I basically put the value of the box I’m holding above my life.
Jessie closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable. Not that it made a difference—she couldn’t see anything, anyway.
The sound of a flare being fired was followed by the sound of sizzling rushing past her. She opened her eyes, but before Jessie could see what was happening, a hand wrapped around her arm and pulled her upper body out of the water.
“Adrik?” Jessie gasped into the darkness after she coughed out not nearly enough of the choking mud. “I thought you—How did you survive?”
Then she saw the glowing hand hoisting her up.
“He didn’t,” clone Jessie said, “but he did teach me something valuable.” She gestured to the splendid being still swimming circles around its own body to get at the invisible flare. “Flares may not hurt these things, but they do drive them crazy. All that heat and movement really rile them up.”
Jessie felt the claw around her loosen as the splendid being devoted all its attention to catching and consuming the fizzing flare that somehow mimicked life better than she did. “Help me,” she grunted as she pulled herself loose from the mud’s suction. The terror was back, but this time, she loved it because it meant she was still alive.
“And get mud on my uniform?” Clone Jessie crossed her arms. “Not doing i—”
Jessie stood up and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you,” she said to her clone, who didn’t actually look too disgruntled about the mud. Of course she didn’t. Jessie knew she secretly loved the approval of others, even if she didn’t show it—part of the perks of understanding every aspect of her clone. Jessie thought she owed it to her for dragging her into this mess.
“Very sweet,” her clone groused, pushing her away after a moment, “but being sweet won’t save you from that monster. Galaxies, I can’t believe I’m related to you.”
Jessie nodded and composed herself. They both took a peek at the splendid being, which was now coiled up and deadly still in the deep pool, probably feeling for vibrations and footsteps. As soon as they made a run for the spaceship, those scarecrow arms would be digging their graves.
“One, two . . .” They both started running on “two,” years of gunning for first place kicking in. The splendid being exploded out of the water like a homing missile, shooting up then scrambling back into the ground as if it were a demented centipede without all the legs.
The scariest thing was that it made no sound. It didn’t shriek or roar—the splendid being’s sole purpose was to hunt down its prey.
“We’re not going to make it are we?” Jessie huffed, wiping a tear from her eye. She didn’t even feel sad; it was just that her body couldn’t take all the stress anymore.
“I’m not,” clone Jessie agreed. Her eyes gleamed. “But you are.”
Jessie desperately scanned the swampy plain for any leverage she could use against the splendid being. They were so close to the spaceship, and the Wary Moon had almost disappeared below the horizon. They had to survive, what, a minute more?
A claw closed around her ankle for the second time that day. Jessie jerked her leg away before it could snap shut, but its worm-like mouth was suddenly below her, preparing to mash her up with its ring of rough but razor-sharp teeth. Clone Jessie threw herself at her, and they both barely dodged the splendid being, who had given up on surprise attacks. It slid towards them, not even bothering to hide within the grass, and Jessie knew this was the end.
The only way to survive was to ask clone Jessie to sacrifice herself for her counterpart, and Jessie couldn’t do that, not anymore. Not even if the odds were stacked against their survival or clone Jessie was about to disappear at the end of the minute.
Clone Jessie shook her head sadly. “You’re really getting sentimental, aren’t you? I’m just a copy, Jessie. Your life is infinitely more valuable than mine.”
Clone Jessie tossed aside something, probably the empty flare gun, and cracked her knuckles of light. She raised her fists . . . then started sprinting away from Jessie. “I think I figured it out,” she yelled back as the splendid being whirled around and slithered after her. “Look closely at the Moon of Oblivion.”
“What?” Jessie said, confused, but it was far too late to think. She clutched the pulsing box with both hands and ran for the sake of her life. Far behind her, the ethereal grass and trees floating in their sea of all-encompassing darkness were starting to fade away, their reign being replaced by the normalcy of visible, if a bit purplish scenery. The Moon of Oblivion was on the rise, and as its pockmarked and purplish glow touched her face with the barest traces of heat, Jessie caught one last glimpse of Clone Jessie before she leaped into the light, vanishing like a dream. The splendid being behind her reared up its head in frustration, and then it too was gone, broken back down into the individual photons that had made up its form.
Jessie breathed out shakily. Her foot squished against the swampy earth, and she glanced down, almost afraid of what she would see. Brown mush with a slightly green tinge. She was back into reality.
Back into the light.